Big Bend region observes the 109th anniversary of the Battle of Ojinaga

Pancho Villa at the Battle of Ojinaga in a still from the Mutual Film Corporation.

OJINAGA — The Battle of Ojinaga began 109 years ago this Tuesday, marking another anniversary of the decisive victory of Pancho Villa’s revolutionary forces against the Mexican Federal Army, or Federales, in 1914. The battle ended the Federales’ stronghold in Northern Mexico and pushed many civilians in Chihuahua to flee into the United States, some of whom settled down in the Big Bend region.

Echoes of the Mexican Revolution can be felt all over Ojinaga — represented in murals at City Hall, in a statue commemorating Villa on the road leading out of town. Many of the city’s streets are named for revolutionary leaders, and a detailed exhibit at the Museo Regional de Ojinaga provides a definitive and captivating overview of the conflict for visitors. 

In late 1913, Pancho Villa — the head of the revolutionary movement in Chihuahua — captured Juárez, then made his way down to Chihuahua City, pushing the Federales out of the capital and toward Ojinaga. Villa sent troops ahead toward the border, who experienced discouraging losses against the 4500 soldiers awaiting their arrival. 

On January 10, 1914, the Marfa New Era reported on the first wave of conflict on the outskirts of Ojinaga. An estimated 700 wounded and dying were brought to Presidio for treatment by the Red Cross. “The reports from the associated dispatches … were not exaggerated, according to many eyewitnesses who went from Marfa to see it,” the New Era reported. 

At last September’s Multicultural Festival, the Presidio Convention and Visitors Bureau decided to make an important handoff to the Museo Regional de Ojinaga. The City of Presidio donated a series of panels educating visitors about the Battle of Ojinaga to the museum as a gesture toward how deeply the two cities’ histories are intertwined. 

The panels also detailed an unusual aspect of the Battle of Ojinaga: there was a Hollywood film crew onsite to record Villa’s victory. On January 5, 1914, the cash-strapped Villa signed a contract with the Mutual Film Company that came with a $25,000 advance. The crew packed their equipment on burros and headed for the border to make a one-of-a-kind film, splicing together live-action footage from the war alongside staged reenactments from Villa’s life. 

As the rebel’s second attempt to capture the city began, Marfa resident Tom Turner was one of many locals who hurried south to catch a piece of the action. The Cuero Daily Record reprinted a letter home from Turner on January 13, 1914. “The firing of the artillery and the sharpshooters never did stop,” he remembered. “I could not tell how many were killed.”

Turner did not stay for long on his perch above the river. “There were too many bullets for me,” he wrote. 

The close of the battle — and the preexisting chaos across northern Chihuahua — prompted a large caravan of refugees to cross the river and head north. The El Paso Herald reported on January 14 that the surviving Federales, as well as women, children and livestock, would be staged in Marfa before heading to Fort Bliss via rail. 

The Herald estimated that there were around 3,700 refugees, which would cost the U.S. government around $1,500 a day to care for. The column of migrants headed to Marfa was rumored to be 12 miles long. “The tattered line of former Mexican federal soldiers, women and children, followed by horses, burros and dogs, as they straggled over the mountain roads in clouds of dust, was a sufficient picture of an army in retreat,” they wrote. 

In A History of Marfa and Presidio County, historian Cecilia Thompson recounted Marfa locals’ response to the arrival of the refugees, who were kept in a corral while they waited for the train that would take them to El Paso. The Home Missionary Society, assisted by the Chamber of Commerce, raised $118 in relief funds for the new arrivals. 

Not everyone was willing to lend a helping hand to the migrants. Marfa State Bank President and Presidio County Commissioner T.M. Wilson felt that the donations might bring on a surge of foreigners and helped put a committee together to appoint additional night watchmen. Other powerful men in the community wired the governor “urging that steps be taken to safeguard Marfa citizens from indigent refugees.”

Hubbub in Marfa subsided as most of the refugees headed west, but the war would wage on for five more years. The Villistas would return to the Big Bend through raids on the Brite Ranch, Glenn Springs and Boquillas. 

Mysteries surrounding that fateful weekend in 1914 still remain: the original film reels for The Life of General Villa have been lost. American writer and journalist Ambrose Bierce disappeared during the battle — he was most likely killed by crossfire, but no one knows for sure. 

Those mysteries may never be solved, but Ojinaga marks the anniversary of the battle each year — a reminder of a weekend that left an indelible mark on the history of the city and the history of Mexico.